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Planning for Our Future Workforce: Teaching Leaders to Prepare for Succession

by Sue Plaster, M.Ed.

This article is focused on how educators can work with today’s leaders to do action-oriented succession planning and, through dialogue with one another, reach a degree of consensus in their plans.

Succession planning is a set of management systems, processes and activities that serve to guarantee continuity of leadership and expertise in an organization. Its focus is on identifying, developing, retaining and potentially advancing individuals within the organization. Succession planning is a subspecialty of human resources development, linked closely with performance management, leadership and employee development, employee engagement, and diversity. Experts such as William Rothwell view succession planning as a subset of talent management, which in turn is part of the larger realm of workforce planning. (1)

Although large organizations may have well-established succession management systems in place that are closely linked to leadership and employee development, many small-and mid-sized organizations either do not have succession plans or have informal mechanisms that aren’t tied to employee development or other talent management work. As the U.S. baby boomer generation transitions out of full time work, succession planning presents a way to plan for those transitions as well as to identify and address potential talent and knowledge gaps.

Most organizations adapt their succession planning methods to their own unique business needs and strategy. Ideally, succession planning involves teams of leaders at several levels of the organization so that there are snapshots of the talent from more than one vantage point. And ideally, succession plans consider who may potentially be able to step into leadership and other critical roles on an immediate basis, in say one to two years, in three to five years, and even five to nine years if we take a longer look at talent potential. Succession planning pays attention to the performance, potential, readiness, and congruence of individuals to the organization’s values. And, in many organizations, succession planning includes planning for the diversity of people, culture, and ideas that will build rich capacity for the future.

Elements of Succession Planning and Management

In general, the work of succession planning tends to focus on one or more of these elements:

  • Data
  • Successors and Roles
  • Rating and Ranking
  • Dialogue and Consensus

One of the ways leaders put their imprint on succession activities is by focusing the work in a direction they believe will best match the current and future needs of their business. For example, a new leader may want to know the depth and strength of the talent pipeline and get an indication whether the leadership can judge talent effectively. So, the new leader may put the spotlight on identifying and evaluating potential successors. Another leader who is working to improve dynamics on the top team may put the focus on fostering candid dialogue and discussion about talent.

Succession management includes:

  • Consideration and evaluation of current roles and what it takes to perform them,
  • Future organizational structures and what they may look like,
  • Needs of the business and the talent requirements to meet those needs,
  • Assessment and judgment about current talent in the organization and their potential, and
  • Intentional development actions and moves to enrich the talent.

Development Planning

Development planning is a clear next step from succession planning, because the work of succession, including meaningful leadership dialogue, helps leaders identify important talent and knowledge gaps and share perspectives on who might potentially fill those gaps. Wherever there is a talent or competency gap, succession planning methodically done results in a better understanding of the gap and often a clearer plan for how to address it. This is just one of the areas where partnership between leaders and leadership development staff is critical.  The participants can then set up a roadmap for action that prioritizes the most vital training and development needs of high performing, high potential employees.

The Role of Training

Leadership development and succession trainers have an important role in helping leaders understand how to go about evaluating future potential of employees, and how to create realistic and practical succession plans. The system used need not be complex. In fact, simplicity is an asset in talent and succession management.

Although talent databases are a great asset for this work, flipcharts and PowerPoint presentations can serve as well. This is particularly the case when the organization’s culture, business needs, and talent requirements put the focus on a data-driven, candid, and action-oriented discussion of talent by the leadership teams, with an emphasis on leadership development actions that can be tracked and measured.

Leaders who have not taken part in succession planning before may have some understandable reluctance. They may see it as distracting from more important operational work, as inappropriately promising roles to employees, or as potentially threatening to their very jobs. It is vital for the leadership development and succession staff and consultants to work with leaders to respond to their concerns, demonstrate that the methods used will be kept simple and reasonable, and invite them to keep the spotlight on identification and development of talent for the future. Once they understand that the conversations will be productive, action-oriented, and well-facilitated; that no promises come with succession plans; and that no threat is intended to them, leaders generally respond well. And when they begin the work – even if initially resistant – they realize it will help ensure the greatness, continuity, and diversity of organizational talent.

(1)   Private Correspondence, William Rothwell to Susan Plaster, M.Ed., March 20, 2014.

About the Author

Sue Plaster, M.Ed. has invested more than 30 years of her career in the diversity and cross-cultural communication arena. Her consulting work focuses on assistance to small and large organizations with diversity and cultural competence, as well as succession planning that take diversity into account.  Sue also serves individual clients as a career transition and mobility advisor.  Sue’s industry experience includes health care delivery, health care manufacturing, controls manufacturing, and secondary education.   Sue holds a Master’s in Education from the University of Minnesota, with a focus in leadership development. Her undergraduate degree is in English, Speech and Education from Saint Catherine University.  Sue has been an instructor in Internal Communications for the University of St. Thomas Master’s in Business Communication and presents at numerous local and regional conferences. You can connect with Sue through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com